A new study of “the major American writers from 1830 to 1930,” as proclaimed on the jacket of An American Procession, induces great expectations. Given the immense amount of scholarship and critical attention that major American writers have received in recent decades, any attempt to encompass them in a volume is a difficult undertaking, and only an exceedingly well-prepared person (or a foolish one), steering between the Charybdis of captious specialist readers and the Scylla of bewildered lay readers, can hope to write a book both informed and original on such a comprehensive subject.
Alfred Kazin ranks among those qualified to try. As long ago as 1942, while still in his twenties, Kazin published On Native Grounds, a book remarkable for its breadth of knowledge. Surveying American literature in relation to American society from 1890 to the eve of World War II, Kazin expressed misgivings concerning the academic wing of literary criticism, and over the years he has retained a journalist’s interest in the contemporary scene and a journalist’s suspicion of abstruse and overspecialized literary scholarship. While continuing to write periodically on American literature, he was drawn (one is tempted to say “inevitably”) into the university orbit. He has also written several more books, including one, Bright Book of Life (1973) on the twentieth century American novel. Who could be blamed for hoping that An American Procession, its title from Walt Whitman, might not only be Kazin’s magnum opus but also one of the occasional indispensable studies of American literature?
To anyone approaching An American Procession thus hopefully, the book is a distinct disappointment. It divides its century into three rather equal periods, 1830 to 1865, 1865 to 1900, and 1900 to 1929, and studies six to eight writers in each section. So far, so good. It is always possible to quarrel with the divisions, inclusions, and exclusions of any such book. Because it is not encyclopedic (and An American Procession, with twice the territory to survey, is somewhat shorter than On Native Grounds), the book must exclude the merely almost great, and it can scarcely avoid some measure of arbitrariness in the divisions by which it orders and interprets the indisputable giants. Whereas he was determined in his earliest book to give the neglected William Dean Howells his due, here Kazin decides to subordinate him severely to Mark Twain and Henry James and Stephen Crane. Both decisions are defensible.
Nevertheless, a book whose table of contents makes such a show of organization, division, and exclusivity must argue its grounds and demonstrate the cogency of its arrangement. A glance at those contents raises questions: Why does Ralph Waldo Emerson alone receive two chapters to himself? Is there any basis besides conventional convenience for coupling Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in another? or for demanding that Theodore Dreiser, Henry Adams, and Twain march together in another? or for juxtaposing Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in another? To many such questions, the text does not suggest satisfactory answers. Neither does Kazin’s prologue, an essay on the aged Henry Adams in 1918 (though interesting in itself), nor does his “Retrospect” on John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1932 provide any original hypothesis capable of tying together the separate essays or parts of the book. The arrangement of these writers seems as casual as the title of the whole work. Kazin parades his twenty writers in chapters of varying degrees of incisiveness and coherence, and ends by disappointing the reader who has anticipated an important contribution to American literary history or criticism.
Kazin’s coupling of the late Dreiser novel with the early Faulkner one piques the reader’s curiosity, but whereas a chapter in On Native Grounds established a thematic relationship between the fiction of Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, all Kazin does here to establish connections is write, “Dreiser was a novelist Faulkner once praised.” If the two novels have anything in common beyond publication in the 1920’s, the author has kept it a secret. The restriction of the Faulkner subchapter to Faulkner’s first great novel—despite the fact that, as Kazin himself correctly observes, Faulkner’s glory years extended from 1929 to 1936—seems to derive from a numerological principle: 1929 is the hundredth year after 1830. As a matter of fact, Kazin in his first two chapters is happier with 1832 as his starting point, the year of Emerson’s farewell sermon to his flock at the Second Church of Boston. Had he chosen 1836, the publication year of Nature, he might have had 1936, the year of Absalom, Absalom! as well as of the completion of Dos Passos’ trilogy U.S.A., a work Kazin holds in high regard and praises ably in his epilogue. What...
(The entire section is 2045 words.)